Changing Memes

November 21, 2011 7:51 a.m.

I’ve wondered about this for a week or two. And I haven’t known quite what to make of it or how to express it. It didn’t start with this pepper spray incident at UC Davis. But that sort of crystallized it further in my mind: the core message about economic inequality is being overwhelmed by a distinct story about (depending on your perspective) street violence and police brutality or excessive militarization of crowd control.Last week I met a person heavily involved with OWS in New York. And I told him that something seemed to have changed in the previous couple weeks — basically that the dominant imagery had become about confrontations with the police rather than the core economic messages which had been more dominant previously. In most cases it didn’t seem to be the fault of the OWS protesters. It was peaceful or mainly peaceful protests getting met by excessive police responses. But still, at the level of imagery and message, the end result can be the same. And in this case, I’m not talking about the ridiculousness and movement-character assassination on Fox News. I’m talking about coverage that lacks that sort of committed bias.

Something similar is at play with this pepper spray incident at UC Davis. Yes, this is horrific. And in my mind at least it puts a spotlight on a more general trend in the country — which is increasingly tech-based and/or militarized policing strategies. But how much do the acts of the campus police at UC Davis have to do with economic inequality and the ownership of the state by the super wealthy? Unless you’re up for a Chomskian analysis of our present moment, pretty little, I think. And a lot of the people I talk to in OWS totally get this. After all these are the public employees whose pensions and benefits are on the line across the country.

I can see the argument about how they’re connected. But I think it’s far more theoretical than real.

A number of longtime readers wrote in over the weekend saying things to the effect of ‘I’d been equivocal on OWS until now but seeing these images have galvanized me, made me think it’s a fundamental moment for the country or that this is an iconic moment, etc.’

One long-time reader wrote this …

I have been watching the OWS movement with ambivalence: a mixture of empathy for their aims and concern about their impact on independent voters in the 2012 election. But the pepper spray incident has shaken me free of that for the moment… Imagine if cops did that to tea-partiers… We know how fox would deal with it… But I imagine that even msnbc would have seen it as excessive and illegal use of force… Will there be outrage on the morning shows tomorrow about the UC Davis incident?… Or will the prevailing punditocracy view that “the hippies brought it on themselves” remain the mantra of the establishment?

But again, an iconic moment about what? The issue of police brutality and militarized or quasi-militarized policing is a legitimate and very important issue, entirely unto itself. But the the campus police at Davis or the NYPD for that matter aren’t what’s driving the rising inequality of American society.

So, I put this out there as an observation with only a tentative analysis and no clear prescription. But the protests and the police responses look like they’re taking on a life unto themselves with the inequality message moving somewhat into the background.

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